Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

Archive: December 2014

A World Within an Island: Exploring the Many Habitats of Central Cuba, Part Two

Posted in From the Field, Travelogue on December 30, 2014 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


Julio León Yoira Rivera Queralta Behaimia cubensis
Julio León and Yoira Rivera Queralta encounter a single individual of the exceptionally rare Cuban endemic tree, Behaimia cubensis

Editor’s Note: President Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. will normalize its relationship with Cuba has focused attention once again on Cuba, an island nation where scientists from The New York Botanical Garden have conducted expeditions and scientific research for more than a century. In this two-part series, a Botanical Garden scientist describes his recent two-week field trip to Cuba, part of an ongoing effort to discover and document the island’s richly varied plant life.

For the next leg of my August field trip to central Cuba, my colleagues and I traveled to the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast. In Cienfuegos, we were joined by Julio León of the Botanical Garden of Cienfuegos, an expert on the flora of Cienfuegos Province. Julio took us to several highly productive collecting sites.

One of the most interesting habitats was the transition zone between a karst slope and a coastal mangrove swamp. Here we encountered one of the best finds of the whole trip, an individual of Behaimia cubensis, a very rare Cuban tree which is the only species of its genus. The evolutionary affinities of Behaimia are currently unknown, so I was very excited to collect material that could be used for DNA analysis.

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Emerald Planet: Honoring the Work of Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy

Posted in Personalities in Science on December 24, 2014 by Matt Newman

Left to Right: Gregory Long, Lewis Cullman, Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., E.O. Wilson, Ph.D., Sir Ghillean Prance FRS VMH, Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D., Noel Holmgren, Ph.D., and Ed Bass at the 123rd Annual Meeting.
Left to Right: Gregory Long, Lewis Cullman, Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., E.O. Wilson, Ph.D., Sir Ghillean Prance FRS VMH, Patricia Holmgren, Ph.D., Noel Holmgren, Ph.D., and Ed Bass at the 123rd Annual Meeting.

This past November, some of the most influential botanists and conservationists in modern science gathered together for The New York Botanical Garden’s 123rd Annual Meeting, joining CEO and The William C. Steere Sr. President Gregory Long and the NYBG’s Board Members for a recap of the past year’s successes—as well as the Garden’s plans to come. But top billing during this event went to a person who has not only served as an integral member of the NYBG Board since 1986, but proven an enormously significant figure in global ecology initiatives and conservation efforts.

For many, the highlight of the evening was Thomas E. Lovejoy, Ph.D., who received the NYBG’s Gold Medal—our highest honor—for his accomplishments within and dedication to biodiversity and plant science.

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A World Within an Island: Exploring the Many Habitats of Central Cuba, Part One

Posted in Travelogue on December 23, 2014 by Benjamin Torke

Benjamin M. Torke, Ph.D., is an Assistant Curator at the Garden’s Institute of Systematic Botany. His specialty is legumes, a large plant family that includes not only beans and peanuts but also hundreds of rain forest tree species.


Editor’s Note: President Obama’s recent announcement that the U.S. will normalize its relationship with Cuba has focused attention once again on Cuba, an island nation where scientists from The New York Botanical Garden have conducted expeditions and scientific research for more than a century. In this two-part series, a Botanical Garden scientist describes his recent two-week field trip to Cuba, part of an ongoing effort to discover and document the island’s richly varied plant life.

Caesalpinia pauciflora, an uncommon species of the bean family.
Caesalpinia pauciflora, an uncommon species of the bean family

Earlier this year, I participated in a botanical expedition to Central Cuba. The purpose of the two-week trip was to visit a variety of natural habitats in that part of Cuba, an area with a diverse but understudied plant flora, and to collect herbarium specimens and samples for DNA studies of targeted species.

About half of Cuban plant species are endemic, meaning they occur only there, and many of them are highly endangered. The fieldwork would contribute to ongoing efforts to assess the current geographical distributions and conservation status of Cuban plant species and would provide critical material for studies on the systematics of particular plant groups. As The New York Botanical Garden’s curator of the legume family, Fabaceae, also known as the bean or pea family, I was particularly interested in collecting some rare and endemic species of beans.

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Discovering New Plant Species in the Field—and in the Herbarium, Part Three

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 19, 2014 by Douglas Daly

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants. Read Part One and Part Two of this series for more information.


This Central American rain forest is one of only two places where Dacryodes patrona, a new tree species described by Dr. Daly, has been found.
This Central American rain forest is one of only two places where Dacryodes patrona, a new tree species described by Dr. Daly, has been found.

In the first post in this series about the process of discovering and describing new plant species, I noted that the average lag time from when a new species is first collected in the field to when its name and description are published is a shocking 35 years. After publication, new species often languish in the herbarium and scientific journals, even if the information they represent has important conservation value. But sometimes we beat these odds by publishing new species in a relatively short time, and having the results makes a difference.

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A Day in the Life of the Bronx River

Posted in Interesting Plant Stories on December 17, 2014 by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is a Research Associate at The New York Botanical Garden.


In canoe from left: Elaine Feliciano, NYC Parks, Conservation Crew Leader, Bronx River Alliance and Adam Felber, Bronx River Alliance. In the foreground is common pondweed (Elodea canadensis), one of the native species found.
From left: Elaine Feliciano, NYC Parks, Conservation Crew Leader, Bronx River Alliance and Adam Felber, Bronx River Alliance. Foreground: common pondweed (Elodea canadensis), one of the native species found during the Bronx River Survey.

Plants that grow beneath the surface of streams and other bodies of water are easy to overlook, but they play important roles in aquatic ecosystems. They help clean and oxygenate water, stabilize fragile stream-beds, and provide food and habitat for aquatic and wetland creatures, including insects, fish, and waterfowl.

Examples of submerged aquatic plants include native pondweeds, coontail, and eel-grass. But some species—milfoil, fanwort, curly pondweed, hydrilla, and others—may become invasive, choking waterways, consuming oxygen, and reducing biodiversity.

In August, a team from The New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx River Alliance, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation surveyed the upper reaches of the Bronx River, looking for native and invasive species of submerged aquatic plants. The survey was jointly organized by NYC Parks, the New York-New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program, the Bronx River Alliance, and representatives from other federal, state, city, university, and community organizations.

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Discovering New Plant Species in the Field—and in the Herbarium, Part Two

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 12, 2014 by Douglas Daly

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants.


The oil-rich fruit of the newly described species Dacryodes urut-kunchae attracts many game animals. (Photo: David Neill)
The oil-rich fruit of the newly described species Dacryodes urut-kunchae attracts many game animals. (Photo: David Neill)

When plant scientists discover new species—as I discussed in the first post of this series—their discovery is often an extremely rare plant, and frequently the specimens they see are incomplete. For example, there might be fruits but no flowers, and we have to search for more specimens or wait for other scientists to send us more examples before we can thoroughly describe and publish a species as new. But when a region is first explored botanically, sometimes we are amazed to find that a conspicuous member of the plant community has no name.

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From the Field: A Botany Lesson in Vanuatu

Posted in From the Field on December 11, 2014 by Stevenson Swanson

Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.


VanuatuOf all the far-flung places that scientists from The New York Botanical Garden explore, one of the farthest in terms of distance and culture is Vanuatu, an island nation in the South Pacific with a population of about 225,000 people spread over 65 islands and speaking more than 113 indigenous languages.

With its remote location, Vanuatu is home to many plant species that are found only there, making it a treasure trove of biodiversity and an important source of materials for biologists to study. The residents rely on native plants for food, fuel, medicine, and more, but unlike some better-known Pacific islands, Vanuatu’s plant life and the traditional knowledge about how to use those plants have not been adequately studied.

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An Unusual Find in the Herbarium: A Story of Righting a Past Wrong

Posted in Past and Present on December 5, 2014 by Sarah Dutton

Sarah Dutton is a project coordinator who is currently working to digitize the algae collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden.


Cropped label of bone pic
A curious specimen surfaces in the Herbarium’s archives

While making high-resolution digital images of lichen-covered rocks that are part of the collection in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium, I came across a specimen not long ago with an unusual and rather alarming label. Plainly written as part of the collection data on this otherwise inconspicuous box was the statement that the specimen was “on bone of Eskimo child.” I opened the box to find, indeed, a bone of some kind with bright orange and yellow lichen growing on it.

I happen to have studied anthropology in college. One of the most important things you learn in a modern anthropology class is that many of the interactions between researchers and indigenous peoples during the long history of the discipline were downright exploitative and unethical by today’s standards. For example, archaeologists and anthropologists have had an unfortunate history of taking artifacts and even human remains from groups of people without consent from the members of that community—and sometimes even when they were explicitly asked not to. Today, many indigenous peoples are working to repatriate these artifacts and human remains back to their original communities. This possible human bone in the Steere Herbarium immediately concerned me, and I wondered whether the NYBG should attempt to return it to the people it came from. Dr. Barbara Thiers, the Garden’s Vice President for Science Adminstration, agreed that we should look into it, and we began to investigate the history of the specimen.

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Discovering New Plant Species in the Field—and in the Herbarium, Part One

Posted in New Plant Discoveries on December 4, 2014 by Douglas Daly

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany and the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany at The New York Botanical Garden. Among his research activities, he is a specialist in the Burseraceae (frankincense and myrrh) family of plants.


A Central American rain forest that is home to a rare plant species recently described by Dr. Daly
A Central American rain forest that is home to a rare plant species recently described by Dr. Daly

Plant scientists discover and publish about 1,850 new species each year worldwide. That pace has not changed much since 1970, meaning that, although we have already described about 350,000 plant species, we still have a steep “learning curve” and a very long way to go before we come close to documenting all the world’s species of plants.

In this series of posts, I’ll describe some of the challenges that plant taxonomists face in their quest to discover new species. I’ll also explain why that work is so important in the effort to conserve plant life on Earth, using two recent examples from my own work in the genus Dacryodes, a group of about 60 related species of tropical trees.

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